Downtown Tulsa Brings New Energy to Region
By CHARLES CANTRELL
ONEOK FIELD: The downtown Tulsa baseball park opened last spring to thousands of happy fans.
GTR Newspapers photo
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a multi-part series about the past, present and future growth of Greater Tulsa. In this series Newspapers will look back on the history, examine current developments and explore the possible future of various sectors of Tulsa and surrounding communities to give readers a better overall perspective of the many unique and vibrant parts that make up the whole of what we believe to be the greatest place in the world to live: Greater Tulsa.
Much has happened to downtown Tulsa since the passage of Vision 2025 in 2004. Public funding provided for the building of world renowned architect Cesar Pelli’s masterpiece later named the Center. Since the construction, Tulsa’s downtown core has embarked on a transforming journey from a sleepy, roll-up-the-sidewalks-after-five and head for the suburbs dead-town to an increasingly vibrant venue for art, entertainment, sporting events and residential living along with a bountiful array of breakfast, lunch and after-five dining spots.
Public and private funding combined to further the transformation by creating ONEOK Field, home to the city’s oldest sport franchises, The Tulsa Drillers. The transformation continues as local entrepreneurs begin to identify, bundle and brand various segments of downtown with identities that draw customers and even those interested in urban dwelling. City Hall likes to call it, “A New Kind of Energy.” And that, it is.
In previous articles in this series we have explored three of the more established districts in downtown, The Brady Arts District, the Blue Dome and Greenwood districts. Each is vying in their own way for a share of the growing after-five market through specific branding efforts. But the story of downtown resurgence isn’t complete without looking at other new energy hot spots.
The most obvious new thing in downtown continues to be the Center with its gleaming ever-changing edifice, its spectacular iconic glass wall sweeping around to welcome visitors into its amazing interior. Judging by all standards of venue industry measurements, the 18,000-seat arena and the Greater Tulsa market have exceeded everyone’s expectations. With help from , an international venue management company, the center remains in the top ten nationally for ticket sales and 24th in the world after nearly two years of operation. It did so by hosting and selling out nine of the top 10 North American touring acts in 2010 like Paul McCartney, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, The Black Eyed Peas and others.
All this is happening in a market often only 10 to 20 percent the size of other venues ranked. Local sports franchises like the Women’s National Basketball Associate () affiliate Tulsa Shock, the Central Hockey League () affiliate Tulsa Oilers and the Arena Football League () affiliate Tulsa Talons provide a steady stream of fans throughout their seasons. Hence the enormous success of the has drawn the interest of local developers to look at the surrounding real estate and find ways to tap into the new energy created by the successful center.
One such company is Brickhugger, who recently purchased the old City Hall building just south of the from the City of Tulsa for $1.2 million. With plans to convert the property into a 200-room hotel with 60,000 square feet for retail and restaurants, the Snyder family, owners of Brickhugger are embarking on their second venture in downtown revitalization. This same Tulsa group recently completed the restoration and revitalization of one of the crown jewels of downtown deco buildings, the majestic Mayo Hotel. Based on the success of that concerted redevelopment effort, hopes are high for another new exciting hot spot for downtown.
Brickhugger has contracted the Tulsa based architectural firm of Phillips Slaughter Rose Incorporated to design the estimated $25 million project and renowned Manhattan Construction, an Oklahoma company with roots dating back to 1896, will build the newest “playground for Tulsa.” Vision 2025 was a strategy implementing investment of public funds into building public amenities to create private capital venture opportunities that would in turn create local jobs and enhance quality of life for greater Tulsa. Nowhere is the success of Vision 2025 more obvious than with the Center and the surrounding urban developments that have resulted.
Looking north up Boston from Eight Street one can see a canyon of historic Art Deco style buildings lining the street on both sides. They stand as proud testaments to the city’s storied petroleum industry past. There stands the Philtower Building, completed in 1928 and built by famous oilman and philanthropist Waite Phillips, featuring late style Gothic Revival embellished with Art Deco details including its landmark colorful tile pyramid roof. Inside the building are newly renovated residential lofts and “Class C” office space.
There also is the once National Bank of Tulsa Building, now the 320 Boston Building, completed in 1929. It was for a brief moment in Tulsa history the tallest building in Oklahoma and today houses many long-time local businesses. The Atlas Life Building with its recently restored iconic sign snuggles between the Philtower and Mid-Continent Tower and has undergone a $15.2 million conversion into a 119-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel by new owners, Tulsa based Hospitality. Many of these great old building were built in the 1920s and 1930s when oil was king and art deco was the definitive architectural style of the affluent, and “the oil capital of the world” was over flowing with affluence. This area of downtown is referred to by many who understand its historic magnificence and economic potential as the either the Sobo (for South Boston) Deco District.
Most notable of local entrepreneurs interested in developing this vital part of historical downtown is Kanbar Properties. In 2005 and early 2006 Maurice Kanbar and business partner, Henry Kaufman invested $108 million in 20 downtown properties comprising approximately 20 percent of downtown real estate. Since this initial purchase the company has continued to invest in improvements to some of the buildings and has sold some to other developers for renovation to turn the buildings and this section of downtown into another “mixed-use” Mecca. The term mixed-use refers to the type of infill development wherein old and new properties are renovated or designed to accommodate retail, residential and business. It is a development strategy antithetical to suburban sprawl development in that it encourages vertical development to increase population density. One of the many beneficial outcomes of this type of urban development is an increase in city revenue sources to better provide vital services. Recently Tulsa based Fears & Clark Realty Group, leasing agent for Kanbar, initiated a call to action to tenants and property owners in the Deco District inviting them to get more organized around an effort to continue the progress in that segment of the city toward mixed use. This would entail more ground level retail, restaurants and entertainment venues along Boston and adjacent streets.
The recently unveiling of the spectacular renovation of the old Convention Center with its 30,000 square foot ballroom; the opening of the Mayo Hotel offering an array of mixed use hospitality, residential and commercial options; the continuing success of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in the old Union Train Depot; the restoration of the Ambassador Hotel from a blighted old building to a viable commercial property housing a boutique hotel and one of Tulsa oldest upscale restaurants, The Chalkboard; the Tribune Lofts and many more such entrepreneurial efforts all stand as testament to that new kind of energy infusing the core of Greater Tulsa and radiating out to impact the quality of life for all of Northeast Oklahoma. Energy is in the city’s . The city’s energy driven heritage is all around us and its positive impact is undeniable. But it’s no longer black gold or natural gas. Instead it is a new kind of energy that draws on our entrepreneurial past, defines our current state of mind and fuels a vision of the future that grows better everyday.